Bartlett should accept McKim’s Tasmanian Coalition offer

A Tasmanian Green media release today confirmed what most people understood as the Green position in the Apple Isle: they would prefer a coalition government but in the meantime won’t support a no confidence motion against the Labor Government. In the absence of a negotiated settlement or outright malfeasance by Labor, David Bartlett will be able to serve out a second term as Tasmanian Premier. Yet Greens leader Nick McKim continued to offer to negotiate with either party and said they would still hold all of their pre-election policies including opposition to the proposed Gunns pulp mill, fighting to save Tasmania’s high conservation value forests, and rolling back the government’s education reform program “Tasmania Tomorrow”.

These latter three policies are likely to be major sticking points and make Bartlett’s long-term survival hopes appear tenuous. Bartlett could strengthen that position by sitting down with McKim but he has shown little sign of wanting to negotiate what would appear on face value to be an obvious centre-left coalition between Labor and the Greens. But in the poisonous world of Tasmanian politics, Labor might have been better served seeking a Coalition with the Liberals. Prior to the election, Bartlett said he had no level of trust in McKim.

The election under the Hare-Clark rules on 20 March left Tasmania with a lower house of 10 Labor seats, 10 Liberal and 5 Greens. While such a result is common in Europe and leads to perfectly workable coalitions, here the result was greeted with consternation. Both the major parties stuck their collective heads in the sand and said working with the Greens was impossible – working with each other was simply the beyond the realm of thought.

Because the Liberals took 39 percent of the vote compared to Labor’s 37, Bartlett initially held to his campaign promise that he would have over power to the Liberals in the event they outvoted them. Bartlett began to pull back from that promise in the weeks following the election as it became obvious it was dubious from the standpoint of constitutional conventions. He was also bolstered by McKim’s offer of support despite having making no efforts to woo the Greens. On 9 April, Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood made the correct call and offered the Premiership back to Bartlett. Underwood still retains the possibility of offering the job to the Liberals’ Will Hodgman in the event it doesn’t work out. Only then would Tasmanians face another election.

Hodgman bitterly protested the decision and slammed Bartlett for going back on his promise. But this was never Bartlett’s decision to make. As Tasmanian lawyer Greg Barns said, “Underwood correctly applied constitutional convention, which is to say he asked himself which party could provide stability and saw that the answer was clearly the ALP. End of story.”

Of course, it is very far from the end of this particularly story. However, ABC election analyst Antony Green believes Bartlett and McKim are finally discussing the possibility of coalition government with the possibility that McKim and fellow Greens MP Tim Morris may be offered ministries. Former Premier Paul Lennon is also pushing for Bartlett to offer McKim a ministry. How they deal with the looming decision on Gunn’s Tamar Vale pulp mill will be an early test of such an alliance, nevertheless it is good they are talking and the Greens may find it harder to oppose from inside the tent. Australian politicians don’t take easy to compromise but it is the mark of mature governance and often the only way things get done in a democracy.

Hopes for Tasmanian Devil Deadly Facial Tumour Disease cure

Hopes for a cure of the deadly facial tumour disease (DFTD) in Tasmanian Devils have grown with the breakthrough that scientists have discovered its genetic code. DFTD is a highly contagious mouth cancer unique to Tasmanian devils passed on during sex and fights. The tumour quickly spreads on the face and down to internal organs, killing the devil within 9 weeks. The mysterious disease has threatened the species with extinction within 35 years. However the new discovery of the genetic composition allows scientists to develop a diagnostic test for it. The Australian and overseas-based research team hopes to be able to develop not just vaccines, but therapies as well.

University of Tasmania researchers earlier last year developed a pre-diagnostic test similar to a Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test in the detection of human prostate cancer but this has not yet been scientifically validated. A diagnostic test builds on the earlier work and will be more conclusive. Scientist Greg Woods from the Hobart-based Menzies Research Institute said the identification of the nerve-protection called Schwann cells as the likely origin of DFTD was a significant step. “We are now much more confident in understanding what the tumour cell is and this will help in the development of treatments and strategies to combat this disease,” he told The Australian.

DFTD is a new disease. Not a single case was found in any animal captured by wildlife biologists up to 1995. It was first diagnosed in 1996 when devils with large facial tumours started appearing. Small lumps around the mouth quickly develop into large tumours on the face and neck making it difficult for the animal to eat. If they don’t die first of starvation, the cancer kills the infected animal within nine weeks. By the end of 2009 DFTD had laid waste to 60 percent of the total devil population. In the north-east region, where signs of the disease were first reported, there has been a 95 percent decline of sightings of the animal in the decade from 1995 to 2005.

Scientists initially thought DFTD was a virus but realised it was a cancer after they compared the DNA from sick and healthy devils. They discovered that a single nerve cell gene from one devil created the disease cells and then spread to many other animals. Analyses of these cell genes and gene activity patterns indicated that the tumor cells most closely matched Schwann cells, a type of cell that forms a waxy sheath called myelin around nerve fibres.

The researchers say a protein called periaxin normally found only in Schwann cells is also present in devil facial tumor cells and might be a good diagnostic marker for the disease, the researchers report. They still don’t know how the cancerous Schwann cells became contagious in the first place. Katherine Belov, a geneticist at the University of Sydney, believes it may simply be a “freak of nature” that allowed the cancer to be stable and transmitted.

Whatever it was, its effects have been catastrophic among devil populations. In May 2009, the Australian Government raised the Tasmanian devil from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered” under national environmental law. Tasmania’s Threatened Species Act 1995 has also listed the devil as “Endangered” since May 2008. By the end of 2008, the disease had been confirmed at 64 locations, covering more than 60 percent of Tasmania. The Tasmanian government has launched a Save the Tasmanian Devil Program aimed at maintaining genetic diversity, maintaining healthy populations in the wild and managing the ecological impacts of reduced populations.

It is usually uncommon for wildlife diseases to lead directly to population extinction in the absence of other severe threats. But ominously, there had not been any evidence of a single recovery from the disease. There are fears that niches left vacant by the large carnivorous marsupial will be taken up by introduced species such as feral cats and foxes. If this occurs there could be a wider impact on Tasmania’s unique wildlife. The new scientific findings represent the best hope to save the devil. It may take ten years to produce a vaccine against the disease but that will probably be enough time not only to save the animal from extinction but also avoid tipping the island into a major ecological collapse.